The Juror's Perspective

in 35th Montreal World Film Festival

by Andrzej Gwozdz

A film festival is like a menu from which you, yourself, can and should, choose the tastiest dishes. But there are situations where you need to rely on others. That is exactly what happens for a festival juror, whose movie-menu consists of films previously classified to be part of a contest. This also has its good side — gone is the pain of deciding what to choose from the extensive menu of titles and what to pass up. So, the juror’s ‘tray’ is a little different, but probably no less colourful and varied than if it were chosen by the juror. This applies, of course, to any festival, but particularly one like the festival in Montreal, where competition films can confidently compete with those outside the competition, for example documentaries, which the competition doesn’t include.

Montreal is like a crossover between Europe and the United States — even though geographically it’s latched onto the US, it reaches out beyond North America. Of this year’s eighteen feature films in the main competition, only one, Two Jacks, comes from the US, and the rest — with the exception of two (one from China and one from Japan), come from Europe (except in the debuts competition where already half of the films are outside of Europe, and only one is from the US). And although the film as tribute to a great American cinema is fantastic, it does not go beyond being deliciously entertaining. Come to think of it, why should it? Director Bernard Rose entertains the viewer like a veteran Hollywood master, and wants to prove (and did prove!) that Hollywood is not only a matter of big budgets, but it is also a state of mind. Two Jacks is probably the only feature film in the competition that restores faith and hope in the unpretentious fun of cinema through its greatest strengths: an ingenious script, fast-paced action, excellent acting and that classic Hollywood atmosphere. And for me, as a Pole, an extra treat: great Jan Mlodozeniec circus posters adorning the walls of the false corridors leading to dirty deals.

But this year’s Montreal festival was like a history lesson for viewers — a difficult lesson on European history at that; not only focusing on World War II, but also touching on the effects of repression in Franco’s Spain, in the Spanish-Portuguese production Orange Honey (Miel de naranjas), and the repercussions related to the activites of the Red Army Faction in West Germany starting from the 1970s, as in the German The Weekend (Das Wochende) from director Nina Grosse). For some audiences not as well-versed in history, some films would seem to be too difficult, as the discussions surrounding the Polish film Manhunt (Oblawa) by Marcin Krysztalowicz would indicate. Someone who isn’t able to listen carefully to the Silesian slang at the beginning of the film, and for whom Bytom, is a word that features only in rebuses, will not be able to fully appreciate the stories specificity, in which the issue regarding Poles’ collaboration with Germans is equally important (or even more so) as the issue of Silesians being conscritpted into the Wehrmacht.

Where the Polish film focuses firmly on politics, for Grosse, politics remains definitely in the background — with the focus turning towards moral choices that need to be made with the interests of future generations in mind. Grosse artfully depicts a psychodrama between a member of the Faction let out of jail after 18 years and those who managed to avoid punishment (the price could sometimes be betrayal, as in the case of the main character’s sister), proving that this chapter in German history remains waiting for closure. The choice of location — an old, abandoned mansion on the Zingst Peninsula (lying in East Germany prior to unification), lends the film not simply an atmosphere of imprisonment but also the intensity needed to add nuances of reality, not just of a psychological nature, to this psychodrama.

I certainly believe that viewers found the German-Israeli film Closed Season (Ende der Schonzeit), by Franziska Schlotterer, more to their liking — what can I say: great emotional drama, using modest but long-proven methods. A marital triangle seen through the haze of the hysteria of war. 1942, somewhere in the south of Germany, a Jew fleeing to Switzerland, a victim of an evil idea: he is to provide his host with an heir. From this erotic compulsion, true love is born. A love that is unwanted by any of the parties, with all the consequences, including even the Auschwitz camp used as an act of revenge by the woman towards the Jew, for a slap in the face. Schlotterer doses emotions perfectly and the sequence in which the hero returns from the camp to see his son (unborn, as it turns out), the resulting sexual intercourse, or indeed rape, is an extremely highly emotionally-charged scene. The interesting frame narrative keeps the viewer guessing right through to the end, and the masterful acting adds credibility to this tale stretched between an Isreaeli kibbutz in the 1970s and the German countryside during the war.

The masters of suspense, however, turned out to be Dito Tsintsadze, author of the German-Austrian film Invasion, and Turkey’s Ismail Günes, author of Where the Fire Burns (Atesin düstügü yer). These films were very different from one another (the first offering a little bit more of a nod towards Michael Hanneke’s Funny Games) but were, for me, amongst the best films at the festival. The Turkish road movie was a particular surprise — how different from the American prototypes of the genre with their feel-good music and resounding optimism. This was a tragic road movie, so to speak. But a purifying, detoxifying film, despite the fact that the protagonist commits suicide, her ordeal was not in vain: for the first time in years, father and daughter, albeit briefly, find a path to each other. It was an incredibly bumpy one, but still. Günes, a firm believer in the principle of less is more, does an amazing job of displaying the tension between the child-victim and the perpetrator-father, who is chosen by the family to murder a pregnant daughter. He first tries to posion her — to no avail. And then (as indicated by the shovel in the trunk of the car in which he takes her, apparently to her uncle), he plans to bury her. This is a fantastic drama of eye-contact, looks, gestures and a bit of the exotic lending credence to the story, without the burden of the unnecessary baggage and attractions one might find in a tourist brochure. And all with the very apt motive involving German tourists in the background, functioning almost as a pendant to the story.

Close to offering a perfect story is Invasion, although the terror emanating from this movie comes from different sources. These lie not so much in the inevitability of fate, as in a terrifying series of mishaps, with evil escalating to enormous tragedy at the end. With amazing precision, Tsintsadze, in the manner of an architect sitting at his drawing board, drew a chess-game of events for his characters and in this sense it is most definitely a carefully-crafted and calculated film. But everything that came after it (particularly the actors), is full of life and like a kaleidoscope, turns into a real nightmare. Horror functions in its pure state, the anatomy of evil born of the banality of everyday life.